Martyn McLaughlin: Flags can unite or divide a nation

The New Zealand flag is undergoing a redesign  but definitely won't be a kiwi with laser beams shooting out of its eyes. Picture: Getty
The New Zealand flag is undergoing a redesign but definitely won't be a kiwi with laser beams shooting out of its eyes. Picture: Getty
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Flags, supposedly banners of unity, can have a far darker, divisive side, writes Martyn McLaughlin

Can a piece of cloth and ink ever truly represent a nation’s identity, history and future aspirations? It is a debate that is being keenly played out in the South Pacific, where two sovereign states are looking to shake off the shackles of the past and decide upon a new symbol fit for the 21st century and beyond.

New Zealand and Fiji, two of just a handful of countries which retain the Union flag as part of their national symbol, will soon reveal updated designs that excise all trace of their colonial history. In both countries, the process has been contentious and revealed the impossibility of settling upon one representative image of an entire nation.

In Wellington, what was intended as a conversation about national identity has been defined by apathy, controversy and MS Paint-inspired subterfuge. Prime minister John Key’s desire to introduce a “post colonial flag” attracted more than 10,000 submissions from members of the public, among them the image of a kiwi shooting green laser beams from its eyes and a sheep posing alongside an ice cream cone on a red and blue background.

Regrettably, such visions failed to make the shortlist of five, four of which conform to Mr Key’s preferred insignia of a silver fern. Quite how the final designs were settled upon remains a mystery, but the panel responsible has been widely criticised for failing to consult anyone conversant in vexillology, an obscure yet under-appreciated scholarly field devoted to flags and their symbolism.

Instead, the panel, whose members were nominated by MPs, sought out the advice of Matt Holmes, creative director of innovation at the footwear division of Nike, the global sportswear manufacturers.

The shortlist will be put to a binding postal referendum next month before a final preferred design and the existing flag are put to the public vote next spring. The entire process is estimated to have cost more than £11m.

In Suva, the process has been far less transparent but equally problematic. When the plans to replace the archipelago’s flag were revealed earlier this year, Prime minister Frank Bainimarama made clear there was one major driving force behind the change.

“The Union flag belongs to the British, not to us,” he said. “The shield on our flag has the British lion and the cross of St George - a British patron saint. What does this have to do with us? They are the symbols of the coloniser.”

Although Bainimarama rejected calls for a referendum on the issue, he called on the public to play its part by coming up with ideas for the replacement flag. According to the government, more than 2,000 submissions were received.

Unfortunately, not a single design from the public made it on to the final shortlist of 23 flags and the government stood accused of manipulating the process by hiring Ted Kaye, a US-based vexillologist, as a consultant.

The end result looks certain to meet Bainimarama’s demands. Out of the shortlisted designs, there is no place for the Union flag, with the traditional symbols of the drua - a double-hulled sailing canoe - and the turtle most likely to replace it. Both, detractors say, are symbols of the wider Pacific, not Fiji.

Whatever proves to be the winning design will be unfurled on Saturday to mark the country’s independence day celebrations, but a vocal minority in Fiji see little reason to celebrate given the contentious process.

The government has recently brought into law the National Flag Protection Bill, an instrument containing some ominously vague statutes. Section five, which states that “the flag shall be respected by every citizen of Fiji,” is bad enough. But it is section seven that has raised the hackles of those concerned with civil liberties in a country that is no stranger to coups and the suppression of pro-democratic voices. It states: “Any person who uses the flag or associates the use of the flag with any action, speech, writing, or any other means, to demean, disrespect or insult the state, the government or any member of government or the general public, commits an offence.”

Fijian lawyer Richard Naidu, a critic of the government who has been arrested in the past for detailing attacks on pro-democracy activists, is among a small yet vocal band of protesters up in arms at the legislation.

“What does the new law even mean?” he has asked. “Can we have our backs to the new flag? Can we roll our eyes in front of it? Can we criticise it? We need to know because when we are taken to court for not respecting it, we must prove we are not guilty.

“We carry our flag with affection. We see it waved all over the world at rugby matches. We point it out with pride when we see it in other countries. We respect our flag because we want to, not because we are told to.”

It is a point that should be heeded by governments and vexillologists alike. Choosing a new flag invariably invites controversy and is often tantamount to a cheap political trick, an accusation that can be levelled at the governing parties in New Zealand and Fiji.

For any country, let alone those with ties to Britain’s days of empire, the relationship with nationalism is an awkward and nuanced one. A flag should be a work of art, but first and foremost it should capture a country’s character. New Zealand should know better than to allow a multinational sports company to have a say in how best to articulate that; in the case of Fiji, the administration would do well to remember that a flag should be a symbol of protest as well as pride.

It is a shame that in both countries, the search for a new flag has become diversion clouded by indifference and dissent. A flag is more than patchwork. It is a rare opportunity to tell the world what you stand for as a nation and, more importantly, what you aspire to.

The existing designs may well be anachronisms that speak of dominion, but if the alternative is either a corporate-driven rebranding or a thinly veiled exercise in censorship, the process has failed. Perhaps the laser-toting kiwi is not such a bad idea after all.